Martin Johnson is the author of the The Thalidomide Catastrophe which has been making headlines in the UK. I’ve known Martin for some 30 years, and this is his amazing, compassionate, and at times heart-breaking story that he has related to me regarding the Thalidomide catastrophe. – Don Botham.
I was a hospice manager, and in February 2000 we finished building a children’s hospice. The new children’s hospice was receiving its first patients when a couple of different people asked me what I was going to do next. I was content for the Lord to move me if He wanted, but I was not looking for a new job. On the journey home one evening in my car I felt prompted to talk to God, “my boss”, and said: “If you want to move me to a new job, that’s up to you, but I will not look for anything, you’ll have to bring it to me.
“And by the way, if you’re going to do that, I would like to try running a national charity rather than a regional one, and to manage a foundation rather than a fund-raising charity. I would also like to be able to work closely with the beneficiaries, rather than through doctors and nurses as I currently do. Oh, and if I have any say in this, I would like it to be closer to home, as I am finding this commuting tiring,” I prayed.
Then I laughed, as I was sure there was no such charity. About two days later the phone rang, and it was my friend Graham, another hospice manager. He asked if I was thinking of moving, and I said I had no plans to do that, but why was he asking? He said he had seen that the Thalidomide Trust were looking for a new director, and they were based in St Neots (only 15 miles from home), and it sounded “as if they need someone a lot like you”.
I knew this was the hand of God at work, as each detail of my prayer was exactly matched by the Thalidomide Trust, so I applied for the post. At the end of July I began work, and soon realised I needed to travel and visit all the surviving British Thalidomiders, so we would know what their situations and needs were.
Blood of the innocent
I planned to start with those most severely injured, so in September 2000 I met Tina Gallagher (pictured), born with no hands or arms, and only two ‘flippers’ for feet. Thalidomide was a medicine, which left at least 2,000 babies in the UK with severe deformities, and causing the miscarriage or stillbirth of thousands more. The worldwide total was over 100,000 babies destroyed or injured by this drug, with only around 500 in UK, 6,000 worldwide, surviving to adulthood.
Tina operated her mobile phone with a pencil held in her teeth, and told me she was trying to catch up with her education. “So what are you studying?” “A level Psychology and Sociology” “Why those subjects” “So I can train to be a counsellor. I may not have much, but I’ve got two ears and a mouth, and with those I can help people”.
On the day I met Tina I also met a woman with no arms or hands who was struggling to support her six children with the £12,000 a year we provided, less tax at 34%. I started to understand how very unjustly these people had been treated. The amounts we could provide were far too small, and this tax was savage, and exacted by a government that was itself partly to blame for the disaster.
Our MP John Major wrote to Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer asking for help with the tax, but he said “No.” Just a couple of days later, a journalist for the Daily Mirror rang up to ask if there was anything newsworthy happening, so I told him about our problem with Gordon Brown. He investigated, and a few days later there was a front-page headline “Cruel Tax!”, and a two-page spread inside, featuring Tina, speaking on behalf of her fellow Thalidomiders. Members of the group who had never been involved with campaigning before got in touch, particularly Nick Dobrik and Guy Tweedy. These two men met for the first time one night in Parliament.
Our new MP tabled an adjournment debate in the House of Commons. Dawn Primarolo, a Treasury Minister came to give the Government’s response – No! Watching this was a group of Thalidomiders, including Nick and Guy. They had similar arm and hand damage, and I discovered they were both Jewish. They decided that they should join forces and begin lobbying Parliament.
I joined them for our first day of lobbying. We had booked meetings with about 14 MPs, but several didn’t turn up. We had quite a bit of time to chat, and at one point Guy said to me “Here, you’re a born-again Christian, aren’t you?”, to which I replied “well yes, and I must warn you to be careful hanging around people like that, as they can get you into all kinds of trouble!”
That evening, as we left Parliament, Nick was despondent. He said “I don’t think we can succeed.” It suddenly came to me to say “Look, you’re both Jewish, and I’m Christian, but we all serve the God of Avra’am Yitzhak and Yakov, and He is a God of Justice. We will get justice.” From that time on, their skill at lobbying grew until they became one of the best-known lobbying teams in Westminster. By autumn 2003 they had a couple of hundred MPs in support.
We also got the support of a top tax barrister, free of charge. One day in October 2003 I took a call from the head of trust taxation at the Inland Revenue. This day he sounded unhappy, he told me how the activities of our team in Parliament “were not being helpful, they’re upsetting the Minister.” I understood he wanted me to “call the dogs off.” I said that was outside my power, but would he be interested to know we’d had an expert counsel’s opinion on our case? He was, and I said we’d been told to look at the Finance Act 1996 sections 329 AA and AB. He said, “thank God you’ve found that.” and in August 2004 a new law came into effect stopping tax payments on the grants we made!
Then Nick said, “We’re going after Diageo now.” This was the company that had inherited the original company which supplied the drug in UK. I said I didn’t think that would work, as they had only recently agreed to top-up funding, a total of £35 million. My opinion was supported by our chairman, an eminent High Court judge. We were both wrong, and by the end of 2005 we were negotiating a new stream of payments worth £160 million.
Nick and Guy then visited Thalidomiders in Germany, where more than 2,500 lived, and where the drug had been called Contergan, to encourage them to fight for a better deal. We linked with the 100-strong Swedish group too. In January 2008 they formed a global campaign, ICTA (International Contergan and Thalidomide Alliance). Nick next decided it was time the British government should make a public apology for their role in the affair, and make regular payments to assist with their health problems.
In January 2009, when this campaign began, the Secretary of State for Health was Alan Johnson, and he was totally opposed to us. In this he was backed up by his Health Minister, Dawn Primarolo (again!). This time the team moved at speed, and by the summer had the committed support of the great majority of MPs.
Political resistance from the top was still strong, when suddenly, there was a cabinet reshuffle, and Alan Johnson was replaced by Andy Burnham, and Dawn Primarolo by Mike O’Brien. With the full support of these ministers, the NHS staff now began figuring out how to make the deal work. By December we had cracked it, and one afternoon Nick rang me up and said “I’ve been thinking and I can see there have been far too many coincidences to make this happen. I have to say, it’s a miracle and the Lord is in it.”
In January 2010 the Health Minister delivered a statement of behalf of the Government apologising for the part they had played in the Thalidomide catastrophe, and a promise of funding, which by 2014 had topped £120 million.
After 2008, campaigns began in 12 other countries. By the end of 2015 new funding deals had been delivered to around 4,500 thalidomiders all over the world, to a total value of billions of dollars.
In 1987, German Thalidomiders marked the 30th Anniversary of the drug going on sale with an all-night vigil outside the factory, near Aachen. They released a cloud of black balloons, in memory of the children who never survived. The ICTA campaign began with a demonstration outside the German embassy in London in 2008, where for the first time in UK a cloud of black balloons was released in memory of the Thalidomide babies who died.
That was when I started writing the story of this catastrophe, and I found an expert on the German records and chemical history who wanted to help, and one of the world’s top historians of the German chemical industry, so in 2010 we agreed to turn what we were gathering into a book. We found we would be the first people to make public the full scale of this catastrophe, the worst of its kind in history.
This book, The Thalidomide Catastrophe was published in May 2018, but here I want to tell you the previously unwritten story of how the power of God is at work. In this affair, the hidden secrets keep getting exposed. One example was that we found a record of a meeting, secretly convened within the German government to decide how to (illegally) shut down the criminal trial of the executives of Grünenthal. This meeting minute was unearthed just shortly after we saw a letter from the German Health Minister in 2014 saying that such a thing could never have happened, and it would be unconstitutional! Coincidence?
7 ways I have seen the hand of God at work
I can say I have seen the hand of God at work – reaching out to those who have been damaged or destroyed by this evil drug:
- How He put me in charge of the Thalidomide Trust.
- Revealed His heart for the many injustices inflicted on the survivors.
- Had a national newspaper journalist call up at just the time our story needed to be broadcast.
- Raised up a host of men and women all over the world with the gifts and talents needed to present the case to governments and companies implicated in causing the catastrophe.
- Changed the hearts of company directors and politicians to do what was right.
- Removed unwilling politicians from office at the necessary times.
- Uncovered evidence of Government corruption and collusion.
- Privileged me to be in a place where I could tell the story.
Where is this story going? Well, while the survivors have received a measure of justice through compensation, there is still a big issue about the – “The Blood of the Innocent,” all the babies slaughtered by this drug. I think the final stage will see the Lord address this question of guilt, and those who corruptly covered up the crime. God will one way or another deliver justice.
About Martin Johnson
Martin Johnson has degrees in Divinity BD. Management PhD, and Behavioural Science MSc. He has lectured at Kings College London, and Warwick Business School and at the Royal Society of Medicine.
His book The Thalidomide Catastrophe is published by Onwards & Upwards Publishers. “This momentous book is the first comprehensive history of Thalidomide… It demonstrates how many thousands of lives could have been spared very late in the day if Chemie Grunenthal had taken notice of the early alarms … It carries conviction by it’s scientific rigor, and the clarity of writing. Fifty years on after the deaths and sufferings the thalidomide tragedy is marked by… the odour of corruption and cover up.” – Sir Harold Evans, former editor of The Sunday Times and The Times.